Preserving the Worton campus

Maintaining the vacant Worton Elementary School building as part of the district’s larger campus in Worton is one long-term goal outlined in a six-year strategic facilities plan expected to be presented to the Kent County Board of Education next month.

ROCK HALL — After five months of meetings, a special committee established by the Kent County Board of Education to study future needs for schools is ready to hand in its report.

The Strategic Planning Committee met Jan. 17 for what is expected to be the last time. Members reviewed the latest draft of the final six-year facilities strategic plan, reaching a consensus on the recommended maintenance projects.

Consultant David Lever is expected to present the facilities plan Feb. 12 to the Board of Education, after making a few tweaks as requested by the Strategic Planning Committee.

As the Jan. 17 meeting at Kent County Middle School in Chestertown wound down, Chairman Jeff Grotsky, who also heads up the Chestertown Planning Commission and is a former superintendent, thanked his fellow committee members for their efforts.

“I think everybody did a lot of good work on behalf of the kids in Kent County. I think one of the overriding issues for me is I think our kids deserve better than they have right now. I hope that this plan now makes some headway towards implementation,” Grotsky told committee members.

Joining Grotsky on the committee were Superintendent Karen Couch, Supervisor of Student Services and Secondary Education Tracey Williams, Supervisor of Operations Joe Wheeler, County Administrator Shelley Heller, parent and business owner Francoise Sullivan, retired attorney Richard Kalter and retiree Joe Harding, an expert in institutional construction.

Throughout the committee’s work, members toured the district’s facilities and held a series of community input meetings. Their work culminated in a public hearing held Jan. 10 at Kent County High School in Worton.

“The Six-Year Facilities Strategic Plan presented in this report is a first step toward envisioning the future of public education in Kent County. The Plan addresses urgent elementary school needs, and it proposes a long-term planning process that will define the secondary school program for the coming decades,” the report states.

Public comments at the community input sessions included requests to move away from the model of elementary, middle and high schools and establish community schools housing kindergarten through eighth grade that feed the high school; surplussing vacant buildings; and building a new middle school on the district’s Worton campus.

The K-8 model was determined early on to be too challenging for the district to establish because of the size of the schools and the difficulty in maintaining the necessary staffing.

Building a middle school wing at Kent County High School made it into an early draft of the report, but was cut in part because of the cost. Some on the committee thought the nearly $80 million price tag for all the projects included in that draft would not fly with the county government, which would be responsible for much of the cost.

What remains in the current draft are short-term recommendations to replace the roofs at Rock Hall Elementary School and Kent County High School, replace the roof and mechanical systems at Galena Elementary School along with other potential renovations and spend not more than $300,000 to move the district’s central office to the former Worton Elementary School, which was vacated over the summer.

In the long term, the report calls for studying the maintenance needs and potential uses for Kent County Middle School and programmatic renovations at Kent County High School, primarily grouping Career and Technology Education classrooms closer together.

The future of the middle school has implications on Garnet Elementary School in Chestertown. Garnet could move to the middle school campus in Chestertown if a new school were built in Worton for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.

The estimated total for the short-term work focused primarily on roof replacement is $12.1 million, according to the report.

“Thus the outcome of the Strategic Planning process was a compromise between vision and realism: the Plan proposes to address a number of urgent and unavoidable facility needs, but to establish a process through which the Board can address the larger educational and facility needs of the jurisdiction, specifically the educational programs at the middle school and the high school,” the report states.

An item of concern for some speakers at the Jan. 10 public hearing was the $300,000 listed to move the central office to Worton Elementary from its current site in Rock Hall. One parent said that money could be better spent on educational needs in schools, instead of moving an office.

The move would not necessarily be permanent as there are other puzzle pieces, notably the future of Kent County Middle School, still at play in developing longer-range plans. Couch has said she is concerned that if the Worton Elementary building were to remain unoccupied, it would begin to deteriorate faster.

Discussing the potential move at the Jan. 17 meeting, Lever said the expectation is to bring the renovations to Worton Elementary in at substantially less than $300,000.

“I personally think this is still going to be a very hard sell if it is a temporary location for the board offices. That’s the feedback that I took away from the last meeting and I think it’s going to be tough to sell people on that one,” Heller said referencing the Jan. 10 public hearing.

Sullivan said that in the early meetings, the committee heard from members of the public that they wanted a more centralized office for the district.

Getting approval from the Board of Education and funding from the Kent County Commissioners has been a recurring concern at committee meetings. At the Jan. 17 meeting, Grotsky sought to quash such discussion.

“I don’t see us as the salespeople,” Grotsky said. “Our job, as I looked at it, was to come up with the best plan possible and someone else — the board and the county commissioners — deal with the financial piece of it.”

When a district vacates a building, it is declared surplus and handed over to the county.

The former Millington Elementary School is up for potential surplus, as is the Worton Elementary building. The latter building is part of the district’s larger Worton campus, which Couch and committee members want to maintain as it gives the district more flexibility should student enrollment increase or continue its decline.

The district could still surplus two buildings if the central office moved out of Rock Hall. The building it currently occupies is a former elementary school.

Committee members discussed Jan. 17 whether to surplus the Millington Elementary building, also vacated over the summer, but not the land.

Sullivan said the idea is to retain the property in case expansion of nearby U.S. Route 301 brings a development boom to eastern Kent County and a new school is needed.

“If the land were relinquished and there was a population growth, it would be up to the county to come up with land for the school,” Heller said, adding that if the land were retained by the district but not used, there would still be costs for maintenance and property taxes.

Harding said it is a matter for the Board of Education to decide. He suggested streamlining the language in the report that discusses retaining the land.

Additional discussions included improving Americans with Disabilities Act compliance at Galena Elementary, additional renovations at Rock Hall Elementary and the consideration of building security vestibules at schools.

Parent Nathan Shroyer spoke about the lack of projects listed for Garnet Elementary. He said other projects listed were low-hanging fruit that should be done.

Couch closed the meeting by thanking committee members for their time. She said that while committee members were not always in agreement with one another, the discussions were beneficial.

“You may not agree always with the feedback but it is helpful in sorting out the decision-making,” Couch said.

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